Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The point of poinsettias

When I lived in the US what seems like an eon ago, but was only a decade, I was repeatedly told that the only way to grow poinsettias was to keep them entirely in the dark from October. According to a Martha Stewart special I saw, this meant putting them in a cupboard without a chink of light for 8 hours every night. I was also repeatedly told that it was "poinsetta" not "poinsettia" but hey, that's Antipodean pronunciation for you (and there is an "i" in there). I was also followed around a supermarket in Minneapolis by a gentleman who had overheard me talking to my toddler and who felt the desperate desire to inform me that the red vegetables were "red peppers" not "capsicum" and that I shouldn't be misleading my child. But that's another story.

I remember being gobsmacked at the poinsettia advice (yes I like to use the word gobsmacked as often as I can). Our house in southern Taiwan had a huge poinsettia bush growing through the tarmac front yard that was covered in flaming red bracts much of the year. A word about the tarmac front yard. My mum grew up in leafy northern Sydney and couldn't bear not having a garden. Every house we ever lived in had fragments of garden carved out of whatever was there. In this case we lived in the end of a row of semi-detached houses in a rural township. Our front door opened onto the tarmac but my mother had the property line fenced off with bamboo palings and dug a few holes through the tarmac for trees. Then we had plants in tubs as well. When we moved to Taipei, we had concrete tubs of plants circled with spiky plants to stop my mother's favourites from being casually sat on or leaned against.

I recently planted a poinsettia along our fence in the hope that it will survive the depredations of the neighbour's horses. I haven't yet found good screening plants that aren't also delicious snacks for the livestock. It's a hazard of country life. It flowered merrily and has now gone into a growth phase with lots of green leaves. I'm waiting to see if it will become the towering flame tree of my hopes.

I recently saw a clip from the Smithsonian that repeated the adage about eight hours of darkness but added the necessary detail -- IF you want your poinsettias to flower for Christmas. And there is the heart of the matter. If you want to force your plants to exist in a place where they would never normally live and be part of a festival alien to their origins (they were brought to the US from Mexico by Mr Poinsett, a key figure in the establishment of the Smithsonian museums) then you need to go to great lengths to ensure their compliance.

It says something to me of the lengths to which we humans go to make nature comply with our needs and desires. And it explains some of the driving force behind those English gardens that flourish all over Australia. We can, so we do. Whether we should is another matter. Lest this seem overly stern, let me add that I love the cheeriness of flowers in mid-winter and non-native gardens and bright flowers at any time. I have clearly been subverted.

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